Friday, January 22, 2010

Objections Considered: Specific Exceptions

Doug S. is proposing a possible reductio ad absurdum of desirism.

He wishes to argue that the propositions of desirism conclude that all actions are good because they can all be described as actions that a person with good desires would do,

[A]ssuming that X is a sufficiently good desire, then "X, except in some over-specified, rare situation that most people won't ever be in, in which case Y" should also be a good desire, because it's still good "in general". So, if "don't murder anyone" is a good desire, then "don't murder anyone, except under this extremely constrained situation that almost nobody will ever encounter" should also be a good desire.

Every possible act in the real world happens at a specific place and time. So, by simply specifying that place and time precisely enough, I can take any desire, add a sufficiently narrow exception, and still have a good desire. Therefore I can take any agent with good desires, change those desires by adding a narrow exception, and end up with an agent with good desires that will performs the act I specified. Since I can do this for any act at all, that means that every possible act has at least one possible agent with good desires which will perform that act. So all acts are right acts.

An example was brought up in discussion of the killing of a little girl at a specific place in time. If an aversion to killing is a good desire, then an aversion to killing except when killing this young girl at this specific place and time would be an almost equally good desire. So, the killing of this girl may well be something that a person with good (though not perfect) desires would perform.

In response to this I wish to bring forth what desirism says is the relationship between reason and morality. The role of reason to morality is the same as the role of reason to fixing the flat tire on your car. You can reason with the flat tire all you want, but you will not convince it to change places with the spare. The role of reason is to tell you how to use the tools at your disposal to change the flat tire.

Just as you cannot reason the flat tire into changing itself, you cannot reason a person into virtue. Reason is the instrument for altering a person's beliefs. Virtue is a quality of malleable desires. To alter people's desires you do not use reason, you use the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. However, reason will tell you how best to use these tools.

Praise and condemnation are core moral concepts. In desirism, they explain why moral concepts are not applied to fixed desires but to malleable desires - because fixed desires are by definition immune to the effects of cultural tools. It also explains why the concept of an evolved morality is nonsense - because it makes no sense to morally praise or condemn a person for the sequence of their genes. Praise, condemnation, and other cultural tools can have no effect on those sequences. No person can justly claim moral superiority over another in virtue of having a morally superior genetic sequence.

When we bring these concepts to bear on Doug's desires, one of the questions we need to ask is what the likely effects would be of cheerfully praising the killing of this girl. Will this cheerful praise actually help to promote an aversion to killing except for the killing of this girl at this particular place and time? Or will it likely have the effect of weakening the desire for killing generally?

I would suggest that it is the latter. We have more to gain in society as a whole by condemning the killing of this young girl and thereby promoting an overall aversion to the killing of young children, then we have by praising the killing of this young girl and promoting a weakened aversion to killing young girls that would put others at risk of the same fate.

We can clearly invent stories in which actions which we have reason to condemn are not actions that the people in those situations have reason to condemn. However, this is not a threat to desirism. This is, in fact, a part of desirism.

Imagine a planet in which a species much like humans evolved. However, on that planet, there came to exist a sexually transmitted virus. This virus, as it does out, does not do harm to those who are infected. It provides a benefit. Let us say that it forms a symbiotic relationship with the infected person's immune system that makes it more effective against some particularly harmful diseases.

On this planet, pre-historic tribal cultures that tolerated and encouraged sex between adults and children had the effect of infecting children with this virus. These cultures grew and prospered. Where those cultures that condemned this practice ended up with sizable numbers of children getting sick and dying. The cultures that exist today on this planet are the descendants of those historic cultures that condoned the practice of sex with children and even required the rape of children who would otherwise refuse sex.

Consider the similarities between the rape of a child in this hypothetical world and providing a child with a vaccination. Both involve the violent penetration of a child's body against the child's will. It takes a minor change to make an act of sex the delivery system for such rather than an act of skewering the child. The latter, of course, is an act that is not only permissible in our society, but (arguably) obligatory.

However, none of this implies that we humans living on Earth today should praise the act of having sex with children. What is true on that far distant planet is not true on Earth. The fact of the matter is that we, living in the real world, have many and strong reasons to condemn those acts in order to weaken the desire to perform such acts and to put up conflicting desires that would inhibit and reduce the rates at which people engage in such acts.

We may be uncomfortable with the thought that such acts might be permissible where different facts obtain. We are supposed to be uncomfortable with the thought. Part of what it means to promote an aversion to such states is that one is promoting a feeling of discomfort at the thought of such states obtaining and a desire to condemn or punish those who realize such states.

I can even go so far as to say that we have reason to worry about – and even to morally condemn – anybody who does not have an averse emotional reaction to the thought of such a world exist. They are likely to be a threat to us and those we care about.

However, the fact of - and even the justification for - that discomfort for us in this situation does not imply that, if the facts were different, there justification for that discomfort might disappear with it. It justifies our not liking that fact. It may even demand that we have an adverse emotional reaction to the possibility of such facts. However, it does not alter the facts.

In the real world, in the here and now, if somebody were to try to argue for praising the killing of this young girl on the grounds that, "it promotes an aversion to killing except in this one specific instance and that, generally, is a good aversion to promote," we would justly claim that the person is mistaken. The real world isn't built that way. In the real world, his praise of that young girl's death weakens the aversion to killing generally and puts others at risk. The praise of such a killing, like the killing itself, is something we in the real world have many and strong reasons to condemn.

12 comments:

CybrgnX said...

The 'killing the girl' argument sounds as convoluted as the 'determine truth teller on trail' puzzle. the so called logical answer does not exit in the real here & now as the liar will tell you what ever is in his self-interest.
I read the article twice and still could not make anything of it.
I can contemplate the killing of the girl but that is different then the action of doing so. I do not kill not because it is 'bad' or 'evil' but because there is no reason to do so and to do so brings me to a place of stress that is not worth the trouble to be at. Everyone make that decision all the time.
Having sex with a child is not even hard to visualize as we hear about it being done all the time. But to do so would require the twisted thing in the brain that leads to it being OK.
The main thing I got from the post is that morality is relative, which I do believe.
If nothing else the post was thought provoking.

Andy said...

If this proves morality is relative, then everyone believes morality is relative.

Intrinsic value theorists believe morality is relative to what acts have intrinsic value. Divine command theorists believe morality is relative to what God commands. Desire utilitarianism would say morality is relative to certain facts about the relationships of some desires with others.

Moral relativists on the other hand, say morality is relative to a society's or a person's beliefs which is not what Alonzo is saying.

Ultimately, morality may be dependent on certain facts but that's not what moral relativism is generally seen as saying. Alonzo has said in the past that he's a relativist in the sense that acts are right or wrong relative to certain facts about desires. CybrgnX, how are you defining "relative" in your statement?

Doug S. said...

Alonzo, it seems to me that all you've done in this argument is state a different definition of a "right act".

"A right act is one that at least one agent with good desires would perform" implies exactly what I said it does.

You now have taken a somewhat different position: that a right act is an act that it is good to praise. Is that a correct summary of your post?

Emu Sam said...

I'm not sure where "at least one" comes in. People with good desires would have mostly the same set of desires. Suppose there is a hypothetical person with all good desires and another person who may have bad desires, but none which impact the act in question. They will each perform the same act.

If I understand correctly, Alonzo's contention is that the right desire is one which more people have more and stronger reasons to praise.

What if a large number of people have bad desires, leading them to praise that which overall harms more than it benefits? I think in that case we would run into strength of desire being the relevant issue for determining where praise and condemnation should be used.

CybrgnX said...

Acts and morality is relative to everything. As an atheist I find it awful to think of killing someone because it is the eternal end of something unique.
So in my atheist morality it is wrong to kill.
But that is still relative to everything else. If the 'killee' is walking down the street it is wrong to kill him. If killee is raping my kid, I am now the killer - without hesitation or reservation.
Relative to his devout catholic view, Hitler was a good xtian killing the hated jew and building his country on good xtian value. Relative to my view of morality he was crazy evil.
So there is no REAL EVIL just choices-actions-consequences- and reaction of others to those actions.
This type of thing can go on for ever, basically my morality is based on the premise of do no physical harm to another if at all possible.

Marc said...

@ CybrgnX
You're confusing everyone's own morality with what can be said about morality and ethics in general. It's certainly true that your morality and Hitler's morality can both be described as 'good' when viewed from your own perspectives. But that's just the as-is description of someone's individual morality.

Theories of ethics deal with morality in a more generic sense: 'what should people in general do?' Or, to put it in DU terms: 'What reasons do people in general have to act in a certain way?'

Looking at your examples from a DU perspective, people in general certainly have strong reasons to praise people who lack a desire to randomly kill people whenever they feel like it. They also have strong reasons to praise people who have a strong desire to care for their children, family and friends. That these desires can come in conflict in some situations is obvious. What the (moral) verdict will be in such a case depends on the specifics of the situation. Maybe you should have incapacitated the attacker, maybe killing was the only option left, not every situation is the same, so generic answers are hard to come by. (I would probably like to torture the guy who attacks my children a bit before I bury him to the neck and leave him for the ants. ;-) )

Your 'Hitler-example' has a similar answer: people in general have many and strong reasons to condemn someone who has a desire to kill or harm people based solely on their race, religion or skin-color.

So these examples do not yield relative answers at all. Whatever your current personal moral convictions, the fact still remains that there are reasons for action that exist independent of them.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

CybrgnX

So in my atheist morality it is wrong to kill.

Why?

Did you just make this up? If you did, then it is a work of fiction. We can then ask why you embrace a work of fiction and use it to direct your life, and what the difference is between this and religion.

At least most religious people are not so deluded that they would make something up, know that they simply made something up, and yet still insist on acting as if it were real. They really believe what they say, even if they are mistaken.

The classical moral releativist, on the other hand, makes up some moral claims he knows that he cannot defend because he knows that they are not real, and yet still insists on acting as if they were real - and on using their fiction to condemn, punish, and even sometimes to kill those who do not go along with their make-believe morality.

Please, if you would, identify the proposition in desirism that is simply made up. Name the proposition that is not objectively true. If you can do that, then you destroy the theory.

As I have often stated . . . there is no mutually exclusive is/ought distinction. There is only an is/is not distinction. If you can show that a theory does not fit into the realm of what is, then it should be assigned to the realm of what is not.

Doug S. said...

Alonzo, you haven't yet answered my previous question.

Are you currently taking the position that a right act is an act that that it is good to praise (in the sense that praising it will tend to strengthen good desires and not bad ones), and disavowing the position that a right act is an act that at least one agent with good desires would do?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Alonzo, you haven't yet answered my previous question.

Are you currently taking the position that a right act is an act that that it is good to praise (in the sense that praising it will tend to strengthen good desires and not bad ones), and disavowing the position that a right act is an act that at least one agent with good desires would do?

I am trying to recall ever saying that a right act is an act that at least one agent with good desires would do.

My standard phrase has been that an act is obligatory if it is an act that a person with good desires would perform; prohibited if it is an act that a person with good desires would not perform, or permissible but not obligatory if a person with good desires could either perform the act or refrain based on other interests.

The phrase 'at least one agent' does not sound like something I would have ever defended. Though I do write a bit too quickly for my own good from time to time.

And the statement that a right act is an act where praising it would tend to strengthen good desires is far too specific. This would require that the praising agent have only one desire - a desire to strengthen good desires - with no other desire motivating his actions. And that would be impossible.

Until I give it more thought, I am uncomfortable with both of these options.

Doug S. said...

Indeed, "at least one possible agent" is my own interpretation of what you've said. Your exact words are usually something along the lines of "The right act is the act that a person with good desires would have performed." On the other hand, it seems to be possible for two different agents, both with good desires, to choose to do two different acts. (Your writing on trolley problems suggests that you agree that this is the case.) So I chose to interpret "The right act is the act that a person with good desires would have performed" as equivalent to "An act is a right act if there is at least one possible agent with good desires that would perform that act."

I could certainly have gone off course in my interpretation, though.

CybrgnX said...

Well guys I have finally read a posting that has really given me something to think about. Thanks guys!
Alonzo----
So in my atheist morality it is wrong to kill.

Why?

Did you just make this up? If you did, then it is a work of fiction. We can then ask why you embrace a work of fiction and use it to direct your life, and what the difference is between this and religion.
The short answer is Yes and none.

Vichy said...

Oh, my God. What a terrific waste of kilobytes. Atheist moralizing is pathetic. Not even a god could justify ethical bullshit. Value is subjective and arbitrary, the Universe doesn't care about you and in the end we're all dead. Just admit it and stop spinning fantasies to rationalize your herd psychology.